Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Heading South

We’re heading south soon, the wife and I – not because we’re a pair of migratory birds at heart, but because a friend is celebrating his 60th birthday. And it’s not just any old friend, or any old birthday. This is one of our very first friends here in France; we go back nearly 18 years. It’s important that we’re there because this particular friend – a very kind, but vaguely troubled soul – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago.

I remember my first perplexing brush with premature Alzheimer’s. I was 19 at the time, working in a stately home as an assistant archivist during my year off between school and university. It wasn’t the earl himself, a seriously eccentric octogenarian, given to writing little messages (or billets doux, as he called them) on scraps of old envelopes in spidery handwriting that had to be deciphered by his permanent secretary. It was the mother of a school friend.  

I’d travelled north from Stafford to Liverpool and caught the boat across the Irish Sea to Belfast. It was the first trip back after the family’s return to England, so I was excited about seeing my girlfriend of the time and a whole host of old chums. (And what a splendid word ‘chum’ is: another word, like ‘wireless’ and ‘charabanc’ that’s crying out for a revival.) Ian and his brother David lived on the other side of the back entry that divided our two parallel tree-lined avenues. My kid brother and I would blow up old Airfix model airplanes with them and play two-a-side ‘binball’ in the car park of the architects’ practice, so-called because we used dustbins turned on their sides as goals.

Ian wasn’t in when I called round – after being kicked out of my girlfriend’s house by her mum when she caught us snogging on the parental bed – and his dad let it be known with equivocal looks and vague asides that something was up with his wife. On the way to the loo, I bumped into her in a dark corner of the house where the boys used to hang their coats after getting back from school. She said not a word and smiled strangely at me, and her far-away look suggested that she’d gone off with the fairies.

With a start and a sense of foreboding, I recognised that same look in our friend last time that he and his wife dropped by to see us when they were staying with old friends in the Corrèze. Everyone at the time was looking for logical reasons for his forgetfulness and his strange behaviour. He had, after all, a quite high-powered job and stress went with the territory. But by the time I witnessed that vacant look, it was clear enough that the game was up.

Once the diagnosis was confirmed, he took early retirement and they moved south from Paris to somewhere near Avignon, whence they had started out together on their professional peregrinations. We met them when he was based in Tulle and his wife was the institutrice at our daughter’s first school in the next village from our former home, in the Corrèze. She was – and probably still is – a creative teacher and a great motivator of young children. In some ways, Tilley couldn’t have had a better start to her education, but she and her mother have subsequently discovered – in sessions to explore the roots of the psychological trauma that the French system has inadvertently created in her – that it was precisely this start that triggered the mental blocks, which consistently stopped her believing in herself. When she turned up at école maternelle, she found that everyone spoke a language that she couldn’t. Some children, blessed with a precociously positive spin on life, might have told themselves that they were unique, because they could speak a language that no one else could. But our daughter learnt that she was different and wasn’t up to it, and so spent the rest of her schooling trying to convince everyone in her reticent way that she was indeed worthy.  

Anyway, our friend’s wife was also my wife’s first aromatherapy client, so she helped get the ball rolling in more ways than one. Unfortunately, they didn’t stay long in Tulle. Our friend was transferred to Toulouse and thence to Montluçon, a God-foresaken dive on the northern edge of the Massif Central, before winding up his career in Paris. We’ve kept in touch and enjoyed many of those magic mo-ments that Perry Como sung about: his 50th birthday among a host of fans and admirers at the converted school house they co-own on the Atlantic coast; we sole Brits cooking vegetarian curries for all the assembled die-hard meat-eaters; applauding a big red summer sun as it slipped gradually away behind the horizon over dinner al fresco at a beach-side café; a perilous kayak trip down a rocky half-empty river during the canicule of 2003; a guided tour of the Marais in Paris; his tales of Tipitina and the other clubs he visited to imbibe the music of New Orleans during a youthful road trip around America.

So it’s going to be a poignant affair, as we haven’t yet witnessed the deterioration that has taken place during the two years since their last visit. The contrast between his 50th and 60th bashes will be stark. Since music is still something that strikes a chord, we’ll go bearing some T-Bone Walker and a nice compilation of New Orleans R&B, but whether he’ll know that it’s from us – or even remember who we are – remains to be seen.

It’s a long way south to Avignon and another salutary reminder of what a big country France is. Still, the journey will give me my first opportunity to see Norman Foster’s monumental bridge that spans the Tarn at Millau. It’s the first time I’ll have driven down the A75, which runs south from Clermont Ferrand to Montpelier and Bézier across the wind-blasted heaths of the Massif, for what seems like an eternity. Last time, our daughter was a tot in the back of the car, and we drove down to visit some celebrated author and aromatherapist whom Debs met at a conference in Sheffield. We were received in the elegant mas where she lived and practised. We came away somewhat frustrated with non-specific advice that amounted to something like, If you build it, they will come. The rest, as they say...

Stopping briefly at a service station to stretch our limbs in the dead of night half way back across the blasted Massif, I vividly remember an almost ghostly sensation of geographical emptiness. Since then a lot of water has flown over the bridge, as Mr. Malaprop, an ex-boss of mine in the Civil Surface, was given to say.  All that temporal distance may no longer register in the mind of our friend, but it certainly will with his wife, his beloved son and daughter, and all his many friends who will be gathered to celebrate another milestone on the way to our common destination.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Panic In Detroit

What do you do on a miserable prematurely cold Sunday when ominous clouds threaten rain? Well, there are my neighbours’ peaches to gather, home-grown tomatoes to pick, papers to file and some solitary mess to tidy up before my travelling wife gets home. That’ll do for a start.

But what do you do if you live without prospects and with the rest of your life stretching ahead of you in the bankrupt post-apocalyptic city of Detroit? The schools are closing and the great automobile factories, once the only real source of legitimate employment, have been abandoned to human scavengers and creeping nature.

Julian Temple does seem to make exceedingly good documentaries. I have long championed Oil City Confidential, about Dr. Feelgood and life in Canvey Island, Essex. Requiem For Detroit? last week was equally fascinating. Somehow it managed to be both profoundly depressing and strangely uplifting. As one of the commentators suggested – it might have been Mitch Ryder, who once sang with his group, The Detroit Wheels – there’s only three ways of making money for many of the inhabitants: drugs, dog-fighting or stripping the abandoned buildings for scrap metal.

And yet… young pioneering people are turning up, as they did in the San Francisco area during the 1960s, because they look upon the awful ghost town as some kind of land of opportunity. It may take a strong dose of lateral thinking, but you can just about envisage the place as some kind of microcosm of the post-industrial world. Rampant vegetation is swallowing up the legacy of the population explosion that turned Detroit into the fourth biggest city in the USA.

It’s an irony of the cycle of life that the city was populated by immigrants from the Deep South, who gave up their subsistence livelihoods as sharecroppers to work on the car assembly lines of Henry Ford and others of his kidney. Unemployed car workers are now finding that they can make some kind of living by turning over what little land they have to agriculture. Selling fruit and vegetables can bring in around $500 per week, someone suggested. What a great notion to think that one day Detroit might become the first kind of post-industrial urban farm, where produce is grown in diverse smallholdings rather than huge mono-cultivated mid-western style farms.  

This weekend, I went to Vayrac instead of Martel for my fruit and vegetables, bought from stallholders who grow produce that tastes of something other than fresh cucumbers. After depositing last week’s holidaymakers’ laundry at Le Pressing, I sat outside the Bar Tabac with an intense coffee and waited for my friend, Bret. Judging by the voices at the tables around me, the only people daft enough to sit outside on such a dreary morning were English immigrés.

When Bret arrived, he rolled me one of his cigarettes, because he knows me well enough to recognise that I make a pig’s ear of an operation that is thankfully still a rarity in my life. I told him about the documentary, as I know that he too likes to look at life in its historical context. We talked about the notion of actual and moral bankruptcy. Despite the fact that Detroit has suffered what amounts to a Hurricane Katrina in slow motion, it seems that there has been no injection of emergency capital to help bring the place back to life. And yet, he told me, they are building or have built a new stadium for one of the city’s sporting teams at a cost of 300 million dollars or so. The profits, of course, will find their way inexorably into the owner’s already deep pockets. At any time, too, he can presumably move the whole operation – as often happens in the States – to another city prepared to offer a better deal.

The director, Julian Temple, talked to a group of men – all of whom, I think, had already spent time in prison – who were working for a programme or an organisation all about responsibly removing recyclable scrap from buildings, as opposed to stripping them of anything saleable to leave them in a state of imminent collapse. These men spoke openly and surprisingly eloquently of the mayhem that they had once created when idle and the new sense of purpose they had discovered when given a positive occupation.

Meanwhile, we read, President Obama’s credibility is compromised by his inability to engineer the latest US-sponsored war in the Middle East. Why is it, we wondered, that Roosevelt was able to cement his place in history by mobilising armies of the unemployed in the name of a New Deal and yet it won’t wash in the 21st century at a time when, more than ever, we need direction from visionaries of principle? It’s heartbreaking to think of how much money could be diverted from the military to the educational ledgers.

I went home with my fruit and vegetables, musing on such troublesome thoughts. In the evening, I went to Martel with some other friends for a pair of music concerts in the market place. The event was part of a weekend festival linked to the national journées du patrimone. The rain poured down, but even though the stage lighting revealed the fine spray that blew in through the open sides, the extraordinary roof structure kept us all dry.

A big enthusiastic crowd responded noisily to a group called Mellino, whose origins lay in Les Négresses Vertes of late 20th century fame, and even more vociferously to Flavia Coelho, a Paris-based Brazillian chanteuse with spray-on jeans, big hair and an immense smile. The temporary flooring over the cobbles moved like a localised earthquake with the impact of bouncing humans.

Afterwards, we all went home in our convenient four-wheeled killing machines. Henry Ford was a thoroughly unpleasant man with a lot to answer for. But at least he had the clarity to see that his brainchild of mass production would end up being the death of us all. I’m lucky not to live in the segregated communities of Detroit, whose divisions he helped to create. Martel is thousands of miles away in more ways than a geographical one. Nevertheless, there’s a lesson in its terrible decline that applies to us all.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Suits You, Sir

David 'Wide-Boy' Byrne

There are three suits in my bedroom wardrobe: there’s my David Byrne suit with the loud check and improbable shoulders that I last wore for my 50th birthday party; there’s a beautiful oatmeal coloured woollen suit that I bought for 50 quid in a sale at Reiss in Covent Garden, which I haven’t worn since moving to France; and there’s my linen wedding day suit, another 50 quid Reiss sale job, whose jacket was purloined one morning in our old house when our very young child dressed up as Monsieur Petanque, a French rustic character she created out of the blue one memorable morning. I didn’t laugh quite so much when I discovered that she’d torn off a button, but I’ve forgiven her over time – even though I’ve failed to track down a replacement.

Periodically I look at my suits and maybe even touch them with a certain sense of nostalgia. Sensible people, like my wife, would have got sent them to the Croix Rouge by now, but I like to think that one day they will serve a purpose. I’ve already made a pact with my friend Dan that we will become dandies together in our dotage. Regardez! C’est Messieurs Sampson et Courtice, le Beau Brummel et le Beau Nash du Lot.
A dash of finery

I talk of suits this morning because I finally watched over the weekend the DVD bought in the July sales of Procol Harum live at the Union Chapel, Islington in 2004. I’ve long had a very soft spot for the finest of Essex. Briefly, during a misguided period as a schoolboy when my best mate and I believed that we were too cool for 7” singles, I perceived Procol Harum as a singles band and therefore rejected them a un-hip. But a long-haired ‘head’ at the Fridaybridge agricultural camp in the Fenlands waxed lyrical one summer about ‘the Procols’ to anyone prepared to listen. Prepared, I spent some of my hard-earned money on a couple of ‘two-fer’ albums of theirs on the Fly label.

It was a brilliant concert, even if Matthew Fisher the organist looked like a Fisher out of water, re-united with Gary Brooker, whom he would sue unsuccessfully a little later for a share of the considerable ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ royalties. Gary Brooker has a holiday home in the Lot and I caught him one memorable evening in Cahors, turning up as a special guest with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. It seems, though, that I missed him this summer, playing in concert with Andy Fairweather-Low.

An underrated Procol classic

Anyway, Geoff Whitehorn, the guitarist manfully filling Robin Trower’s considerable shoes, was sporting a T-shirt bearing the legend: Success is never having to wear a suit. I thought that was splendid. Enough to persuade me to overlook his unfortunate mullet hairdo and the Adidas sweat bands on his wrists.

It has enabled me to look differently at my underemployed suits. Maybe they can serve as a tangible vindication of the life of a countryman that I chose, quite against type, 18 years ago this September. Last time I was in London, I stayed with my most conventionally successful friend, who sold his shares in a PR firm and invested his money shrewdly. When we parted on the Saturday morning, he was bound for Craven Cottage, where he acts as a guide around the stadium of his beloved Fulham. He wore a beautiful Georgio Armani suit for the occasion and I watched him ride off, somewhat incongruously, on his scooter to negotiate the traffic. He’s in a state of semi-retirement now, but that immaculate suit will always serve as a symbol of his own brand of success.

Last week I had a visit from a young man who, like my friend on the scooter, is a politics graduate. But he has just spent the last five years in the Foreign Legion. As a reader, like many boys of my age, of C.P. Wren’s Beau Geste, I was intrigued. So while Tom quizzed me about the ins and outs of building in straw, I grilled him about his experience in the Legion. It seems to bear little resemblance to the stereotypical images of camels and crenellated forts in the middle of the desert. In fact, he spent a lot of time in and around the Lot – hence his interest in buying a land here on which to build a house of straw.
At a cinema in the Lot very near you

I’d forgotten to mention in my reply to his e-mail that I have resorted to asking visitors to buy a copy of my last remaindered book – to help me get rid of the box full that I foolishly bought with my author’s discount. While wondering how I would broach the subject, my charming and appreciative visitor produced a nice bottle of Cahors wine, which he’d thoughtfully brought as a peace offering. In the end I gave him a copy, happy to help out a fellow traveller on the road peopled with unsuited pilgrims.

Ironically, during my proper career, I never reached the dizzy upper echelons of the Civil Surface where suits are de rigueur. The few that I’ve owned in my life have been more fashion statements than uniform. My only realistic hope of wearing one here in my adopted country would seem to be at a restaurant. However, since we have more or less given up the hope of finding an establishment that serves up decent vegetarian food that hasn’t been whipped into a froth and wiped across a plate as a streak of edible colour, even that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Hey ho, then. It’s a countryman’s life for me. For now, my three suits will remain as unworn objects of desire for as long as the little pieces of cedar can fend off the moths. One thing’s for sure (now that the accursed hunting season is upon us once more): you’ll never catch me in the countryman’s olive-coloured uniform that goes with the peaked cap and rifle. If and when I sport a suit in my dotage, perhaps I shall take a cane on my walks with canine companion and with it I can fence off these menacing predators of our wildlife. A pox be upon you and your family, sir! Be gone in your 4x4 and never again darken these wooded paths! For I am Beau Sampson, defender of the Animal Kingdom!

Even hunters wouldn’t dare mess with a be-suited expatriate octogenarian.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Life Out Of Balance

Towards the end of a difficult stay in the UK, I had a Koyaanisqatsi moment on the motorway. You know: that film of time-lapse photography produced by Francis Ford Coppolla, depicting a world alarmingly out of balance.
Crosstown traffic

Maybe it was the cumulative effect of following Jane Campion’s bleaker-than-bleak thriller, Top Of The Lake. Nothing I’ve seen before has depicted quite so relentlessly mankind’s propensity to despoil paradise.

More likely, though, it was our family ‘holiday’. A long week of day returns to Southampton General hospital, a city within a city full of sound and furious activity signifying a collective battle against insurmountable odds. For all the laudable attempts of the National Health Service to promote the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, the forecourt was always crowded with patients wired up to portable life-support systems, nipping outside for a crafty fag. And there’s a Burger King in the ground floor ‘shopping mall’ to cater for visitors who get peckish at the bedside of their loved ones.

My mother has been inside this centre of industry for over six weeks now. My two sisters have been taking turns to bring our father in for three-hour visiting vigils. My brother, it seems, ‘can’t cope with hospitals’. Until recently, our mam was in one of the geriatric wards, quite happy in a way, sandwiched between a woman who berates the hard-pressed catering staff for bringing her food that she denies ordering, and a woman who has been plugged into a machine since a heart attack failed to carry her off to a better place.

Every afternoon, this woman’s daughter would sit by her bedside, holding the old woman’s hand while she punctuated her big sleep with groans that suggested life (of sorts). One afternoon, my wife placed an empathetic hand on her shoulder and gave her a naturopathic look – whereupon the poor woman burst into tears. She has been coming every afternoon since the beginning of June, with no real hope, but a strong sense of love and filial duty. Three times a day, a catering assistant brings food prepared in the bowels of the building. Three times a day, the untouched food is presumably scraped into a black bin bag. I calculated that if the wasted food from every hospital in the land were collected each day, it would feed the entire population of Scunthorpe. No wonder Britain’s national debt leads the world.  

Anyway, my mother was doing quite nicely thank you. Thanks to the miracles of allopathic medicine, she was prevented from slipping quietly away via the back door. They regulated her sodium level, reduced all the excess fluid that her failing heart couldn’t pump away and gave her the liquid nourishment that she was refusing to take in solid form. Visiting time was a matter of holding her hand, exchanging smiles and skirting the issue of what happens next.

But then on Sunday night it all went pear-shaped. She got out of her bed in the middle of the night – a bed which surely should have been barred like a baby’s cot – and fell in a crumpled heap. She broke her hip. Thereafter, the holiday turned into a trip to Dante’s Inferno. It was the sudden silent and agonised facial contortions reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ that were the hardest to bear. Trying to impress upon someone the need to keep still is futile in the face of short-term memory loss.
View from a bridge

Perhaps fearful of American-style litigation, doctors and nurses clustered at her bedside. A huge bumbling surgeon called Freddy from somewhere like Slovakia, whom I had surely seen before in a Mel Brooks film, turned up to deliver a Ladybird guide to hip operations. 

The next day, my father went along for the long wait while she was in surgery with MP3 player and Sunday-best clothes, as if mentally prepared to say his last goodbyes. Since my mother weighs no more than a sparrow now, they gave her an epidural rather than risk a general anaesthetic for the insertion of the metal bolt or whatever it is they use to mend bones.

Somehow, against the odds, she pulled through. The next day’s vigil, however, was like a session with the Spanish Inquisition. Whenever the medical team came round to administer painkillers or to change her position in the bed, we were ushered into the corridor from where we could still hear her cries of No! No! Oh please don’t. All I could think of while holding her hand as she writhed in her bed was Doris Lessing’s maxim – that if all the suffering in the world were to give off a toxic cloud, it would pollute the universe.

Cousin Will with Jack the Lad
Since our escape to France, we’ve been steering The Daughter through some of the films on the comprehensive list sent by her college in preparation for Year 2. The other evening it was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. When my namesake, Chief Will Sampson, snuffs the life out of a lobotomised Randle Patrick McMurphy, I couldn’t help but think that I should have administered the pillow to end my mother’s suffering. My sister Jo had felt the same impulse – but neither of us could face the prospect of the next ten years banged up in the high-security wing of HMP Parkhurst. Better to find some kindly doctor with a syringe full of something quiet but deadly.

It was on the M27 en route for the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry, when I had my vision. Koyaanisqatsi – if I remember correctly – is Hopi Indian for ‘life out of balance’. We were approaching the turn-off to Fareham, capital of the bleak no man’s land between Southampton and Porstmouth. Above us, a constant procession of cars, white vans and lorries crossed and double-crossed the motorway. Suddenly, briefly, it all seemed so aimless and futile. What on earth are we all doing here on this planet? Where are we going? Is it simply a matter of T.S. Eliot’s birth, copulation and death? 

Back home and a thousand kilometres or more from Southampton General orthopaedic wing, I was walking our dog the other morning down the rocky track that leads to the nearby hamlet. A car came reeling towards us. It was the farmer who feeds a colony of feral cats around the back of his house. Had I seen his flock of sheep? They’d wandered off and he’d had a call to say that they’d eaten all the lettuces in someone’s kitchen garden. I hadn’t seen them, but smiled inwardly at the thought of their campaign of vegetarian terror. While the sheep will wander, the world doth turn upon its axis. At least my own life in my familiar little world was back in some kind of balance.